Poem-A-Day: A. E. Stallings

I recently saw this poem and it just knocked me out. The author, A. E. Stallings, generously allowed me to share it with you here.

In an environment where some writers may feel a tension between wanting to give voice to a marginalized perspective and not having the right to assume that perspective, Stallings’ poem creates a space for empathy and understanding and compassion and guilt without being heavy-handed. On a more technical note, I’m impressed by the poet’s use of rhyme and meter to create the even but not even, symmetrical but somehow “listing,” feeling of riding waves on the ocean.

Below the poem, find the poet’s own commentary on it. This poem first appeared in Literary Matters, and it later appeared in Women’s Voices for Change along with Stallings’ commentary.

***

Empathy

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant. I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

***

“I am trying to remember exactly when I wrote this—it seems to have been published in September of 2015 but must have been written in the summer. My son did indeed have a broken arm, and my daughter was a six-year old who was fearless on the beach but with little in the way of swimming skills. The civil war in Syria was starting to become more visible in Athens—there had been a number of people, mainly families camped and protesting in the main square, Syntagma, until the police whisked them off one night. My husband is a journalist and had gone on Coast Guard patrols in the Eastern Aegean as these flimsy dinghies started coming in greater numbers. He had interviewed people who had been in the water for hours. (In one case, a woman had managed to save a baby, but not another child, who slipped her grasp.) That famous photo of the drowned toddler (Alan Kurdi) was shared widely in September of that year, but that was only one image, and this poem would have been written before that, I believe. Local news and social media sites often showed images of the drowned—kids my own kids’ ages, in similar clothes.

“By January of 2016, an average of ten people a day were drowning—again, often children, with one day seeing thirty-nine deaths. And of course not everyone was even found or declared missing. That was after this poem was written, but this sense that children were drowning in the same water we swam in haunted me all summer, the sense of the Aegean as dangerous and full of death as well as wine-dark or Santorini blue, and that the same element that caressed my children pulled others under. I had dreams about making that crossing. It was maybe that heightened sense of vigilance and danger you just have as a parent of young children, the way you can’t avoid reading terrible news stories about mishaps and accidents.

“But I did not want to write from the point of view of people undergoing this—that felt false to me; in a way I felt it was unimaginable and I wanted to keep that sense—and I wanted to engage with the very difficulty of writing about it. Empathy is derived from the Greek, of course, but it has almost the opposite meaning in Modern Greek to its English denotation—to feel in or towards someone and thus perhaps to feel against them. (The English word is itself a relatively recent coinage, with a pseudo-Greek lineage out of the German translation—before that, I suppose we had only “sympathy”—to feel or suffer “with” someone.) The poem was written relatively quickly, and I wanted to make sure in revision not to smooth the rough edges, the odd off-rhyme or rhythmic off-kilterness. I don’t normally end a poem so flatly, on such a bald statement, but I wanted that gambit here. And I wanted the poem to be published and distributed quickly—it spoke to the moment—which was why I was very glad it was taken by the (then-new) online magazine, Literary Matters.”

—  A. E. Stallings

***

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville 1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, Hapax (TriQuarterly 2000), and Olives (TriQuarterly 2012), as wells as verse translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics 2018) and Lucretius’s The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics 2009). A new book of poetry, Like, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Press in the fall. Stallings is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and is a teacher beloved of students all over the world. Visit her website and order her most recent book here.

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Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Gross

I love social consciousness in poetry. Even better when satire is involved.

Remember back in December when seven important words were banned from appearing in CDC documents related to their budget?

Talk about insidious and damaging and hateful. Of all the things the current administration has done which are repulsive, this floats near the top of the list. It doesn’t even really matter how the words were banned or for what purposes. Anyone paying attention and thinking with a critical/analytical mind knows what’s going on here, and it has a lot to do with “framing the debate” (also known as “spin” or “controlling perception” or “manipulating the listener”) and with chipping away at civil liberties and human rights.

In response, enter the poet Elizabeth Gross and the sestina form.

If you’re unfamiliar with the sestina, it’s an old French form which operates on the spiral rotation of six words to create a thirty-nine-line poem. They are marvelous and fun writing puzzles. See if you can identify the key words and the rotating form in this poem by Elizabeth Gross, which first appeared in the CDC Poetry Project, edited by Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon.

***

Science-based ethical consciousness seeks same

Hellooo, potential soul-mates! A little about me: ever since I was a fetus
I’ve felt most comfortable underwater—we all start out transgender
mer-folk after all, with gills and tails—suddenly vulnerable
to everyone and everything when we hit the air. Entitlement
begins here, begins early, with a slap. Yet, for some, an evidence-based
approach eventually reveals that others exist, and there is a diversity

of consciousness to color in the lines drawn by our diversity
of physical bodies. I start with my own example as a fetus
but really I’m looking for someone older, awake to the evidence-based
world around them—I mean, the end of the world. A woman, transgender
or non-binary individual because I can’t even with the entitlement
of straight cisgender men. How are they still talking? How invulnerable

to shame? Are they actually convinced that they’re the vulnerable
ones in this society? Digging in their heels so the new “diversity
hire” can’t put on the same bad suits? Whining entitlements
are un-American! Hate-watching RuPaul’s Drag race from a fetal
position, tweeting rage, kept up at night by fantasies of transgender
people using the same bathrooms as their wives. An evidence-based

analysis reveals zero threat to cis straight men, but evidence-based
studies do show our culture slowly changing as the vulnerable
claim more space, more time (shout out to you activist honeys!) Transgender
women of color are still targets of violence but we wear DIVERSITY
IS STRENGTH on tee shirts sometimes, right? Now it’s me in the fetal
position—the world is too much/not enough right now—aren’t we entitled

to feel a little bit okay sometimes? No? Not ever? Am I even entitled
to a we here, in this divided moment? I want an evidence-based
takedown of the language of authority. I want a language-less fetus
culturally speaking, a fresh start. Let’s pretend we’re all vulnerable
here (because we actually are) and also recognize a diversity
of strengths as strength, remake ourselves in the image of a new transgender

god. To recap: I want to find a girlfriend (broadly defined). Transgender
non-binary genderqueer femme tomboy yay! (I know, I know, my entitlement
is showing.) My references will attest to my loyalty and candor. I offer a
.      diversity
of first date suggestions, crowdsourced and vetted—truly an evidence-based
approach to dating. Let’s trade anxiety dreams without touching, get vulnerable
and cry for a while, on the floor, separately, with NPR on, in the fetal

position. Too much? I’ll call you fetus if you call me science. We’re all entitled
to evidence-based pet names that reflect our true diversity—
transgender, cisgender, anygender the heart can hold, make vulnerable again.

***

Elizabeth Gross is a poet/translator/teacher/karaoke enthusiast from New Orleans. She completed her MFA in poetry at Hunter College of the City University of New York and still inhabits New York occasionally in her stress dreams. She co-translated and produced a new adaptation of Euripides’ Bakkhai at the Marigny Opera House in 2015. Her chapbook Dear Escape Artist, a collaboration with artist Sara White, came out from Antenna in 2016. More poems have recently appeared in Okey-PankyTENDERLOINFairy Tale Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. You can find more about her and her work at grosselectricworks.com.

Monday Earworm: Ani diFranco (I know, she’s one of my favorites…)

Tomorrow is Election Day. It’s not a presidential election year or even a Congressional mid-term, and so not a lot of people are likely to show up. When I early-voted last week (halfway through the early voting cycle), I was one of only 1.9% of the eligible voters in my district who had done so.

I cannot stress enough the importance of showing up and participating. Especially if you want change. Please.

If you know me, you know Ani diFranco is one of my very favorite artists, so you’ll get to see a fair bit of her on this blog when I feature music and poetry. This one is not only beautiful, it’s important.

Witchy Weekend: What Is A Witch, Anyway?

A practicer of magical arts.

Someone who buys into that really old time religion. A pagan.

Someone who knows her own damn mind.

A politically inconvenient troublemaker.

A heretic.

A caricature, a cautionary tale, a mockery.

Someone trying to make at least one little corner of the world a better place.

Someone who meditates.

Someone whose compass has five points.

Someone who is using the resources she has at hand to solve the problems that sometimes feel too big, but she is trying to do it anyway.

Someone who knows that what goes around, comes around, threefold.

Someone who wears a pointy hat, someone who has an intelligent cat, someone who soars to the moon and back.

 

 

Monday Earworm: Rush

I love this song. I think I might actually like the studio version better than this live one, but this live one is still pretty great.

My relationship with Rush is tangential and hardly worth fangirl status. Several of my friends in college loved them, and so I started listening to them as well, and while I’m hardly well versed in their entire discography, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a song of theirs I didn’t like. Concept albums really appeal to me as well, so there’s that.

This song always reminds me of my students, especially my seniors, whose potential stretches out before them like an ocean. It also, oddly, reminds me of Justin Trudeau. Not really sure why. Maybe because he’s making a very good case for being the leader of the free world now that the U.S. has clearly relinquished that position? (And sorry, Angela Merkel, you’re otherwise kind of awesome, but no one who doesn’t support same-sex marriage can be the leader of the free world in the 21st Century, so.)

Okay, political rant over. Please to enjoy.

 

Caption Contest

I’m mired in grading finals right now, but I’ll get back to posting on this blog next month, when I’m in the swing of summer.

For now, have a photo and a caption contest. Your prize will be my undying admiration for your participation. If you’d also like to win one of my books or a handmade poetry art card, let me know.

I found this photo by accident. The best attribution I can give at the moment is that it was on Gary He’s Twitter feed. But it’s an amazing photo and just begs to be captioned, so please, have at it.

 

Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco (again)

Here’s another poem-set-to-music by Ani diFranco. This one is from a live performance, possibly the same version as on her live double album Living In Clip (which is one of those take-with-me-if-I’m-stranded-on-a-deserted-island albums, by the way, so definitely check it out if you’re interested in hearing more of her music).

In “Not So Soft,” Ani takes on inequity.